Wherever I've seen the palmyra, along tank bunds, beaches, and degraded hillocks around here in Chengalpattu, it seems to have been planted by humans. What is its original home? To which forest type does it belong? I've spent years walking in circles around these questions.
In his ‘Dictionary of the Economic Products of India,' Sir Joseph D. Hooker wrote of the palmyra, “I believe this palm is nowhere wild in India; and have always suspected that it, like the tamarind, was introduced from Africa.” I latched on to that fragment. Sir Hooker ought to know, since he had conducted extensive botanical surveys in India during the mid-1800s.
However, some years ago, Rom and I found a lifelike sandstone sculpture of a palmyra crown at the Jabalpur Museum. It was at least 1500 years old. South Indians have written on strips of dried palm leaf since the 5th century BCE. Was Hooker mistaken? Perhaps palmyra was Indian, but had lost its wild habitat to human settlement completely.
As a child, I crafted windmills from palmyra leaf, and the fruits made perfect wheels for carts. On numerous summer afternoons, I scooped out the tender kernel with my thumb into my greedy mouth. I drank the freshly tapped sap as a child, and the fermented version as an adult. In winter months, boiled roots were sought-after snacks.
When probing into the palmyra's origins didn't yield any further tidbits, I focused on another palm tree, the talipot. The word ‘thali' (‘mangalsutra' in South Indian languages) comes from the name of the tree, because the original wedding practice was to dip the leaf in saffron water before the groom tied it around the bride's neck. So says William Logan in his ‘Malabar Manual' of 1887.
However, talipot belongs to wet forests of the west coast. In arid Tamil Nadu, it grew in temples where it was most definitely planted. It flowers once, when the tree is between 30 and 80 years old, and dies. Comparatively, the palmyra flowers and fruits every year, and lives a great many years. Its leaves were also used as writing material. Perhaps Tamilians originally used the native talipot, and later switched to the more fecund palmyra.
Borassus flabellifer, the palmyra's scientific name, is listed as a characteristic tree of the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest in most botanical inventories. But it does not tolerate shade. Is it really a forest species?
I called Pradip Krishen, a tree-aficionado friend. He confirmed that his reference books said the palmyra was a native of the Indian subcontinent. The seed of doubt was too deeply embedded in my head to accept that unconditionally.
I started the search from the other end, Africa. Palmyra grows all across that continent's savannas. It truly seemed at home there, surrounded by giraffes, zebras, elephants and other animals. The only creatures I've seen ambling around these palms here are cows and goats. Then it hit me. I was looking at Borassus aethiopum, and one of its other names was Borassus flabellifer. The World Agroforestry Centre suggests that the African species may have been domesticated and became the Indian palmyra. Years of selective breeding may have created a new species, just as domesticated wolves became dogs.
Excited by this discovery, I emailed another friend Rohan Pethiyagoda who shares my interest in history. Within hours, he sent me a scientific paper that showed our palmyra was a distinct species in its own right, even though it looks almost identical to aethiopum. The former ranges across the Indian subcontinent and into the Malayan peninsula, while the latter is strictly African. But that doesn't resolve the question of palmyra's origin. Prehistoric trade could have dispersed a domesticated species far and wide, especially if it had many uses. Rohan says a genetic study currently underway will resolve the ambiguity.
Until then, I just have to learn to be patient.